Terry had a face that an observer might feel it was impossible to forget. It came as some surprise, therefore, when it proved impossible to recall it in any detail after a lapse of only a few hours. Since there was little else to support the failing memory, however, Terry being devoid of any other memorable feature than those of a purely visual nature, the only recourse for anyone wishing to refresh their viewing screen was to revisit the Oxenham Arms, where he could be reliably found, six days out of seven, between the hours of twelve and two and again from seven to nine.
The face that would be thus refreshed was notable for two particular features. It possessed two owl-like eyes which wore a permanently startled expression resulting from and magnified by a pair of circular spectacles with lenses the thickness of whisky glasses. The effect created was of a series concentric circles gradually receding towards the immobile and unchanging centre where there lurked the expression of a man who had looked down only to find he has omitted to put on a pair of trousers and, from that moment on, could look nowhere but straight ahead.
On the rare occasion that Terry had been seen to remove the spectacles, the onlooker was therefore most surprised to see two soft, grey eyes possessed of a wistfulness that contrasted completely with his normal appearance. So surprised was the observer that it seemed for a moment as if some different person, somewhat saddened by experience, was momentarily revealed. Those eyes had the hurt look of a punished and repentant pet.
The second feature which drew one’s attention was an unusual shape of mouth which curled down so precipitously at each side of his jaw that it resembled a rounded lid that had been carefully positioned with no other purpose than to secure his chin tightly in place. The curvilinear droop was made more notable by the surrounding straggle of dark beard which was trimmed as neatly as a lawn to follow the line of his mouth whilst quickly deteriorating into a wilderness of weeds the further away it moved.
A pair of startled eyes, staring unblinking from their thick glass cage, surmounted above a dramatic length of severely melancholic mouth, were sufficient to secure the attention of any newcomer to the Oxenham Arms and to retain it for the duration of their stay.
In only one other respect was Terry in any way noteworthy. He rarely moved from his seat, showed very little variation in his demeanour and never spoke. Once the newcomer had closed the bar door, any subsequent attempt to reformulate him in imagination merely resulted in surreal exaggerations and nothing more substantive than grotesques peering from church roofs.
Surprisingly, despite their regular exposure, Terry’s strange and enduring silence had ceased to attract any attention from the number of locals who daily drew towards their temple and worshipped there.
‘Hi there, Terry!’ they called.
Terry characteristically responded by raising his glass to acknowledge the greeting and his mouth momentarily inverted in a unique, vast, sweeping movement that resulted in a smile. It was a strangely childlike smile, full and grateful, like the smile of someone who had been fulsomely praised.
‘Terry says he’ll have a pint when you’re ready,’ the newcomer might then say to Vernon, the portly landlord, although no communicable expression had crossed the threshold of Terry’s lips.
Terry smiled a delighted acknowledgement but he made no other response.
In fact no-one had heard more than a handful of words from Terry during the many years he had been a regular visitor to the Oxenham. Most of the other regulars had long since ceased to engage in attempts at conversation. Several had taken it upon themselves to act as interpreters. As Terry approached the bar someone would call, ‘Terry says another pint, please!’
Righty ho!’ Vernon, the landlord, would confirm, ‘Whatever Terry says, Terry can have!’
‘Terry says can you change the TV channel – there’s the Open on the other!’
‘Right oh, Terry!’
‘Terry says he’s off now!’
‘Terry says ….. Terry says……..Terry says……….’ and each silent saying was acknowledged by the vast sweep of mouth and a grunt of pleasure.
An intellectual visitor was overheard murmuring ‘Teresias’.
‘Who?’ asked Vernon.
‘Terry says - Teresias – an ancient Greek – a Theban prophet. He could tell the future.’
Predictably futile attempts to produce humour from this revelation inevitably followed with something like the fervour of a competition.
‘So that’s where he’s staring all the time!’ laughed the landlord. ‘He’s looking into the future. No wonder he looks so miserable! Nothing good ever came from there!’
‘No wonder he won’t say what he’s seen!’ proffered another.
‘Teresias was supposed to have spent seven years as a woman!’ the intellectual informed them.
This was even better.
‘That could explain the expression on his face!’ they joked.
‘Perhaps he’s about to give birth!’
‘Stand well back!’ shouted Vernon, ducking below the bar. ‘Thank you for the warning, professor!’
The banter was both repetitive and agonisingly predictable.
One way or another, Teresias he became. One regular explained to him and he laughed and grunted and raised his glass but otherwise remained immobile.
‘Teresias says he’s going to the gents!’ a regular announced as Terry shifted from his seat. ‘Funny how he knew it was coming!’
There was a roar of laughter. Terry joined in.
‘Ladies or gents?’ another asked to a similar outburst of laughter and grunted approbation.
There came a day, however, when Teresias eventually broke his silent fast. It was a day that few would forget.
Vernon was reading the daily newspaper, the lunchtime rush having once again failed to materialise. Every now and then he raised his head and glanced around at the half dozen regulars. Occasionally, responding to a demand from one or another, he would rise from his seat, not without effort, and perform the function for which he was employed. Being a fifty year old man of ample girth and of a generally jovial nature, he would exchange a few comments with his customers and occasionally read aloud something from the newspaper which he felt would be of general interest.
Teresias was seated at his table, a pint of bitter set centrally before him and his eyes, as usual, focussed on some distant point in place and, it seemed, in time. Periodically, without shifting his focus, his hand followed a route, rehearsed to perfection, to pick up the glass and deliver a sip of liquid to an expectant mouth. Having replaced the glass, Terry wiped the foam from the edges of his beard.
Duncan, a thirty year old with an exemplary unemployment record and stubble of an un-designed character, leaned both elbows on the bar and hunched his shoulders over his half empty glass. Next to him, Dennis, whose variable income was generated through regular investments in a unique portfolio, the returns wherefrom varied on a daily and weekly basis depending on the rise and fall of his stocks and shares in the racing industry, slapped him on the back and laughed.
‘Twenty quid at ten to one!’ he laughed and belched a quantity of stale air. ‘It came in with two lengths to spare! What are you drinking? Lager? Get Duncan a lager, Vern! Terry says he’ll have a fill up too!’
‘Are you in the money?’ an avaricious voice called from across the bar. Les, balding, dishevelled, had parked his council van outside and had popped in for a quick one. He wore overalls and a yellow reflective vest and smelt of drains.
‘Give Les one too,’ said Dennis. Then he added in an undertone meant only for Vernon and Duncan. ‘He can spot a free drink through brick walls, that one.’
‘There’s no bloody justice in this country any more,’ Vernon muttered, in response to a column he was reading in his newspaper. He turned the page towards Duncan and Dennis and left them to peruse it whilst he served the drinks. ‘It’s all weighted towards the criminal.’
‘They’ll be out again before you know it, walking the streets,’ Duncan agreed, with a sanctimonious sigh and, without irony, added, ‘living off the hard working taxpayer.’
‘That’s if they get sent down in the first place,’ Dennis affirmed. ‘The Americans have the right idea – three strikes and you never see daylight again; and the death penalty. I think the relatives should be given twenty minutes with them in a sealed room; that’d sort them out.’
‘I’d kill them, no question,’ Vernon said, ‘and no conscience. I wouldn’t even think about it.’
Unnoticed, Terry’s head had swivelled to look at them. He listened as they expanded upon their frustrations.
‘You just feel helpless,’ Vernon was saying, ‘that’s the worst of it. People burgle your house – you can do nothing. They steal your car of your bike – you can do nothing. They attack you and beat you up; they wreck your business; they attack your wife or girl friend or your kids – there’s not a thing you can do. You end up watching as they just laugh at you.’
‘I’d kill all them if I could get away with it – the world would be no worse off,’ Dennis tapped the bar with emphatic knuckles.
Duncan and Vernon nodded agreement. The conversation lapsed into a temporary, gloomy, self congratulatory silence.
‘Not easy to kill someone,’ an unfamiliar voice murmured, - a mellow, rounded voice, like a voice emerging from a passage lined with chocolate and cream. ‘It needs a lot of thinking about does murder. Can’t just up and murder someone.’
Teresias shook his head. The drinkers at the bar looked at each other and then at the speaker.
Teresias was speaking.
‘Imagine looking in someone’s eyes and thinking, ‘In one minute from now, I’m going to kill you. I’m going to stand here and watch you die and I’m going to know it was me what done it.’ He shook his head. ‘Not many can do a thing like that.
‘Imagine the bad dreams, the conscience; seeing those dying eyes every time you try to close your own. Imagine keeping a secret like that, all your life, never speaking of it to your wife or kids or friends. It’d be there like a shadow between you, all the time. No, not that easy. No.’
He shook his head again and pursed his bearded lips. His mouth vanished momentarily into the dense, surrounding foliage. There was a momentary silence and the onlookers sensed that Teresias had lapsed back into his characteristic silence. They were mistaken.
‘You can’t undo it.’ He continued and his voice, strangely unfamiliar, emerged once again from some subterranean depth. ‘There’s a body buried in a forest or laid on a slab in a morgue. It was you that put it there. Just think! Every time the phone rings; every time there’s a knock at the door, your pulse would race. Every time there’s even a car going past – you’d listen for it slowing down. Your stomach would be in knots; you’d flush up and breathe harder. Perhaps it’s the police; perhaps they’re on to you.
‘Think what your dreams would be like. The moment would keep coming back – the look in a dying eye, the last words, the pleas for a reprieve. Even twenty years later you’d wake up sweating and scared. The fear wouldn’t go away. It wouldn’t ever go away. You can’t undo something like that. Once it’s done it changes you. You can’t be the same person, not ever. No, it’s not easy, isn’t murder.’
‘Bloody hell, Terry, I didn’t mean I was going out to kill someone this minute!’ said Vernon. ‘I just wish there was something you could do to stop the bastards.’
‘I still think I’d like to kill them!’ muttered Duncan. He was not to be easily distracted from the fulfilment, however imaginary, of a fantasy that gave him such feelings of power and control.
‘If I could get away with it,’ added Dennis, pragmatically.
Terry ignored them. He shook his head and his mouth compressed and disappeared again. He looked, if it was possible, even more gloomy. He continued talking. Everyone was watching.
‘It’s like having their ghost walking alongside you, pointing a finger at you. All the time you’re wondering if other people can see it. Every time you speak you wonder if you’re giving away your secret. Sometimes your ghost speaks to you and you answer maybe. Then you wonder who else has heard. Have you spoken aloud, or just in your head? Sooner or later you don’t risk speaking just in case you give yourself away - too dangerous. You just sit and wait and hope that each day will go by and you won’t be found out.
No, decent people like you and me shouldn’t murder. We aren’t meant for murder. Something inside should warn us that it’s not just the evil person who dies.’
‘Those evil people as you call them don’t seem to have a problem. They don’t care who they hurt.’ sighed Dennis.
‘And what if it was someone in your own family who got hurt? Haven’t you a right to something more than justice? What about revenge?’ demanded Vernon. ‘What about the families? Do you think seeing those bastards locked away for a few months is enough for them?’
‘If I could get away with it….,’ muttered Duncan, ploughing his own furrow of thought and talking largely to his emptying glass.
‘Imagine planning a murder,’ said Terry. His fast having been broken, he consumed his words like a hungry man, not stopping to savour or to discern. He spoke now as if there were no gulf between his thoughts and his words. They flowed, cut their temporary path and closed behind themselves. Terry spoke like a man vainly trying to plough the sea. ‘That’s no easy matter. Imagine you had the best motive in the world – not go into that just now, - but imagine a motive no-one would fail to understand. That’s a start. Otherwise….otherwise you couldn’t begin ‘cause then it’s not the same, not for you and me. No.
‘Then there’s the strategy, the plan, how you’d do it, how you’d get away with it, what you’d do after, how you’d manage, where you’d go, how you’d pick up, live, survive, cope? You wouldn’t want to be caught. That would spoil everything. You’d be a common criminal. But there’s nothing common in it, not to you. It’s a matter of justice, it’s right, otherwise……. otherwise nothing, nothing at all.
He broke off to take a sip or two of his drink.
‘I’d wait. I’d wait twenty years. Give myself time – to think, to plan, to make sure. Twenty years isn’t long if you know the end of it.’
‘Twenty years?’ Vernon threw back his head and laughed loudly. His teeth were grey with fillings and his mouth was round and moist and red.
‘You might be dead in twenty years!’ sniggered Duncan. ‘You’d need to be a cold, calculating sort of a bastard for that!’
‘Not a gambler. That’s for sure!’ said Dennis. ‘No-one would suspect you after all that time! No odds there!’
‘No risk,’ said Terry. ‘Teresias can see the future. Imagine twenty years on. Everyone would have forgotten what he’d done. They’d have moved on, lost interest. People would have died, moved house, grown old. History, it’d be – except to you and him. You’d have moved away too. You wouldn’t go back where you might be seen, recognised. You’d be careful. There’d be no-one to know what you were thinking. You and your wife would have split up. You couldn’t live together, not after what he’d done to your family. You’d keep a distance from him but keep an eye on him, a distant eye, not noticed, forgotten. No risk, don’t want risk. Don’t want to get caught. Don’t want to get caught when all said and done. Daft, that!’
‘So you go away and wait for twenty years?’ asked Vernon, incredulously. ‘If you’d waited that long, you wouldn’t want to murder any more.’
‘Yes, good, yes!’ said Terry. ‘He suddenly turned and stared, wide eyed at Vernon. For the first time he spoke directly to the men at the bar. ‘That’s the point, don’t you see? That’s the point.’
His listeners were bemused.
‘If you still want to, if it still matters, if it tears at your guts just as it did all those years ago when he got away with it, got found not guilty even though he knew and you knew and they all knew he was the one alright, if it still boils you up just thinking about it, if you lie awake and can’t sleep for dreaming about it …… well, then you’ve got to do it, haven’t you? Got to do it and take the consequences. Not consequences like being caught – no, not that – just knowing, living with it, new nightmares.
‘Not easy to do, though; killing isn’t easy, not for people like you and me. We’re not made for it. It shocks us, deep down, like damnation, like hell. It lasts forever, chews us up, eats us from inside out. We can’t escape it, never again. It’s a deep wound, a constant pain shuddering through us.
‘No, killing isn’t easy. But getting away with it, not being caught, not found out, - at least except in your mind – you must always expect to get caught, in your mind – that’s easy. To remain unsuspected, uninvolved, unconcerned, no more relevant, no more considered than any other name in a telephone book, - that’s easy. Who would think of you, after twenty years?
‘Then just watch and wait. All that remains is opportunity, method, alibi. Then there’s a chance meeting on a dark street and a syringe, poison, a knife, a gun a club. You want him to know though, to know why, to know what, to know who.
‘Remember Jamie?’ you whisper. Teresias looked directly at the men again. He removed his spectacles. His listeners drew their breath sharply as his grey eyes fell sadly, almost desperately upon them. There was such a depth and distance there. His eyes glistened. ‘Jamie is a good name for a good child. It’s a good name for an eight years old boy, isn’t it?’ he said earnestly. His eyes no longer turned back to the table. He stared at the men earnestly and held them in his stare. ‘He doesn’t deserve to get mown down by a drunk in a car. He’s a boy with brown eyes and a big smile, a boy who means everything to his parents.’
He paused and his eyes vanished once again behind thick lenses. He took a deep drink before he continued.
‘There’s no way to describe the emptiness after. It’s like everything that ever mattered just falls away, bursts like a bubble, fractures, shatters, drifts into emptiness and all that’s left is an unbearable weight of grief that’s just yours and that you can’t escape. Then there’s the driver - drunk, no insurance, fifth offence, doesn’t care. He gets a few miserable months in prison. He laughs in your face as he’s led away.
Now you are standing in front of him. ‘Remember me?’ you say, ‘Look closely! Remember? Ah yes, I see you do; I see your fear; I see you know but, too late. I’ve waited for you. Twenty years. I’m the nightmare you have each night. I’m the guilt you feel when you sleep, in unguarded moments, when the truth sneaks up and surges. I’m the knock at the door, the car slowing outside, the tap at the window, the anonymous letter, the phone ringing and the shadow on the wall. I’m your greatest fear, I’m your gaoler, but now I’m here to set you free. I’m here to take your place.’
‘Do the deed. There’s a silent swing of a heavy club, repeated heavy blows, a grotesque sound of fractured bone and a mess of blood. You slip away into the darkness, the undergrowth of grimy houses and streets. Let the town return to life or death.
Next day you’re home, as if you’ve never been away, always been there; no-one sees you’ve gone so you couldn’t have done it, could you? Habit; same time same place never change, like me, always here twelve till two, seven till nine, six days a week but never the same day off. What about that one day, the day of the murder? Was I here? Yes, you probably saw me, yes, definitely yes. Are you sure you saw me that day, weeks ago? Let me think! Probably, yes - no, definitely! Teresias was here!
‘The dead man? He’s a victim of random violence. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s a casualty of war, collateral damage, poor sod, a name in the paper; shaken heads, times we live in. What harm did he ever do anyone? They don’t know. They’ve forgotten. He’s just another name, another grave, a few tears then forgotten, like he’d never been. But he had been and he’d done things, bad things, and he’d suffered and he’d paid and only you know. Yes, you know. You know. And no-one else can know - not ever.
‘So now the silence falls. He is in his silence and you are in yours.’
Teresias stopped. He no longer looked at the three men at the bar. He stared ahead. His hand reached for his glass and he emptied the last dregs and wiped his mouth.
‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s not easy, isn’t murder.’
‘Two o’clock,’ he said, looking at his watch.
A cold draught slipped through the open door. The three men shuddered.